Thursday, October 8, 2020

Safe

 Driving my daughter to school is safe. Driving back home is unsafe. Sitting at a stop light listening to loud Japanese prog house is safe. Sitting at a stop light with my thoughts is unsafe. Left turns are unsafe. 

When I was working with high school students at a large, underfunded Chicago high school in a neighborhood inundated with "White on everybody else violence", a number of my students in our social justice club had learned from their sister organization a technique (it was either VOYCE or Mikva) which sought to push the conversation about student safety beyond sterile surveys. 

They unfurled a large piece of butcher paper to reveal a detailed map of our school. They talked a bit about the feelings of being unwelcome and unsafe in the very building they were being asked to be vulnerable enough to learn in. 

They asked the other students present to take Red, Green and Yellow pencils and mark the places in the building they felt unsafe, safe or sometimes unsafe. They said they were interested in teachers' perceptions as well, but asked us to step aside so this particular map could be exclusive to students' voices and experiences. 

Parking in the garage is unsafe. Listening to my partner and our shared students talk about empathy on the phone while driving is safe. Pedestrians are safe. Semi-trucks barreling along belching pollutants into our community are unsafe. 

When all of the students had finished, the students leading the activity appended the map to the wall. We silently contemplated as the map they co-created screamed a furious red. "Ms. C"'s room: green. The school cops' station red. Bathrooms bright red. The first floor hallway yellow. The second floor hallway yellow speckled red. 

Playing with my kid is safe. Sitting up alone at night is unsafe. 

I knew that my students felt unsafe in the building. I saw the fights, the students being attacked and arrested by police outside or on the way to school, the police looking in to find a student in a classroom before being met and stopped at the classroom door. 

I didn't know it was this bad. I tried to imagine how one was expected to learn--to be tested and punished for lack of performance in this context. I searched for any explanation for the behavior of the people who contracted those tests and failed to provide safety to the students. 

This wasn't the end of the conversation by a long shot. They joined with other students to fight to destroy the school-to-prison-pipeline. And they won a lot--pay for behavior and zero tolerance policies at a nearby charter network, restorative justice policies within the school piloted with the 9th grade class, a change in district-wide policy around discipline, and the beginning of mass student involvement in police and prison abolition movements. Our schools are still not as safe as they must be for students to have equitable chances to learn. Our streets are still occupied by a violent, armed force that has antipathy toward many students. Our communities are still massively unsafe due to corporate pollution and racist pandemic policy. 

Trying to live when 100% of your self-worth is based on your utility to other is deadly unsafe. Teaching students is safe. Talking about trees with the Sprout is safe. Following students into just action is safe. 
 
Stay safe. Please.

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